Hello, would you believe it, still no sign of a Nobel prize for yours truly, I must have done loads of interviews and they’ve ignored me so far. This time I’m feeling reeeeealllly lucky, I am interviewing the awesome children’s author A. F. Harrold, not sure what the A and F stand for but I’m gonna guess Angus Foxtrot. Three of the best books that both my daughter and I love have been written by Angus Foxtrot, so please wave your hands in the air at Mr Harrold. (gonna call him Mr Harrold on the very slim chance I guessed his first names wrong)
Q1: Let’s deal with the big question first, how have you been handling the pandemic?
The pandemic has been fine for me, thank you for asking. I sit in my shed at the end of the garden and pretend to do a bit of writing. And so it goes.
Q2: One of the best children’s books I’ve ever read was The Imaginary, my daughter loves it and it changed her reading tastes big time, no more reading little kiddy books for her, She would like to know “How did you come up with the idea for this story?” She thinks it is a true story. 😊
I’m really pleased to hear you both like it so much, it’s a thing I’m very fond of. It started with a false draft of a Fizzlebert Stump novel, in which Fizz (who lives in a travelling circus) got lost in the woods one night and was found by a girl called Amanda (who was there on a Girl Scout camping trip) who mistake him for her imaginary friend, for whom Fizz was the spitting image. (Her imaginary friend, Rudger, hadn’t been allowed on the camping trip because it was girls only, so she was surprised to find him there.) This story didn’t really go anywhere much, and so I wrote a completely different Fizz story (Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Cried Fish), and reused the ‘lost in the woods/mistaken identity’ story for a later book (Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Did PE in His Pants).
At the same time I signed a contract for two books – one Fizzlebert Stump story and one ‘whatever you want’ book. So when it came to the ‘whatever you want’ book the imaginary friend idea had been sitting around in my head, doing what ideas do (keeping out of the way and humming to itself), and an image came to mind of an imaginary friend stood at the side of the road, their real friend gone (killed in an accident), and the thought ‘what now…?’ in their mind.
When it came to writing the story, I worked backwards, to get to that place, which meant writing about the real friend, and so I decided to just use the names I’d already come up with (since names are surprisingly hard to come by), hence Amanda Shuffleup and Rudger, and then the story sort of unfolded from there.
There was a first draft without Mr Bunting (named after the poet Basil Bunting, because his book of Collected Poems was next to my desk when I needed a name) and his imaginary friend, that sort of drifted off into vagueness, so I started again, knowing I needed an antagonist, and so I rang the doorbell and let Amanda’s mum open it and we both peered round together to see who was there… and it was that duo and fortunately they were just what the story needed.
I’m happy to think it’s a true story.
Q3: Having a good illustrator for a children’s book is very important, you seem to have surpassed so many other books by finding some incredible artists. Where did you find them and how does the whole process work? Do you write the story, hand it over and give them free range or do you state in advance what you are looking for?
I get paired up with illustrators by my publisher. So, very basically, I write a story and hand it in and they find someone they think will be good for it. (That’s a conversation between my editor, the design team, the publicity and marketing… everyone gets a say, weighing their various needs and desires.) So far it’s always worked well.
Obviously, once you’re writing a series you know who you’re working with (Sarah Horne and I did six Fizzlebert Stump novels together, and Joe Todd-Stanton and I did two Greta Zargo books), and I might’ve asked Sarah or Joe what they wanted to draw and put it in the book. (I remember a brief chat with Joe about the third Greta Zargo book, which never happened.)
And once The Imaginary had happened Bloomsbury were eager to offer the next book-a-bit-like-that (non-comedy, strange fantasy, whatever you want to call it) to Emily Gravett, who had done such an amazing job. But I knew and Emily was not backwards in saying, that it wasn’t her cup of tea – the tone is quite different – and so I got to see the names on the ‘back up’ list they were considering. Crikey!
Fortunately Levi Pinfold was the first to be asked and the first to say ‘Yes’ and he was exactly the right choice and made The Song From Somewhere Else look like something really special (he was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal for it, and won the Amnesty International Honour).
The strange book I wrote after that was The Afterwards and it just felt to me like a book for Emily, and so, because my editor was on maternity leave that year (and I wanted to wait until she came back to work on it), I sent it to Emily first. And Emily loved it and I was able to present it as a fait accompli: ‘Here’s the new book, Emily wants to do it, please, thank you.’
And I’m currently working on rewrites on a new book for Levi, a (very) sort of follow up to The Song From Somewhere Else, currently untitled and rather strange and dark and moody – lots of action down the woods on the rope swing… and if anyone can do good woods, Levi can.
Although I write stories and hand them over, I’m very happy and willing to change the text to match the pictures. And so certain aspects of the look of characters, like Mr Bunting, changed because Emily did it better. Nothing is precious.
The most collaborative book, though, is the latest thing, The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice. It’s a poetry collection by me and picture book supremo Mini Grey, and it’s very much a half-and-half book, where her illustrations are just as important and carry just many jokes as the poems. This was wholly intentional and part of the plan – I wanted whoever illustrated this book to really take ownership and play with it and share the responsibility (rather than just ‘do some pictures’ (which is a perfectly reasonable way to illustrate, but not what this book wanted))… and so they thought long and hard about who to ask, and eventually they asked Mini, and when you look at the book, you’ll understand what I mean – she does not treat my words as sacred!
Q4: Seeing as my blog is the Gnome Appreciation Society and I’ve not seen a Gnome in the three books of yours that I’ve read, do they get featured in any of your other books?
The only gnomes I know of in my books are actually in The Imaginary… I’m surprised you missed them. I forget if they’re named as such in the text, but they’re pretty easy to spot in Emily’s drawings, especially since one of them bears a rather striking resemblance to a certain author and poet that you’re interviewing. (You have permission to photocopy the picture for your blog!)
(And one of these AFH-gnomes adorns my invoices, so if I were to charge you for this interview you’d see another one… but I guess you’ll have to miss out on that for now!)
No way? I’m off to look at the book again, In my defence it is a scary book and I might have been hiding at that point.
Q5: I seem to remember that last year you were heavily involved in a literature festival, I’m guessing that hasn’t happened again this year, have you managed to do any online events instead?
Yes, in person real world literary festivals, like the school visits that usually pay my bills, haven’t been happening this year. I have done a few online things, but not a huge number of them. As ever, I go where I’m asked.
Q6: I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme in your books…Cats, quite often they seem to save the day. Have you got any cats?
Zinzan, the cat that appears in The Imaginary was one of those characters that walks in without being invited. Then after I’d written that and people said to me, ‘Are you going to write The Imaginary II?’ and I said, ‘No.’ I followed up by saying, ‘I’d like to write a ‘trilogy’ of cat books, though.’ Three books each with that cat that look at the world in a new direction (because we know cats see things that we don’t, that they’re linked to the stranger currents of reality) – so imaginary friends, parallel worlds, the land of the dead… And so I did.
There is a cat in at least one of the Greta Zargo books, and there was a lion called Charles in a few of the Fizzlebert Stump books, and a few cat poems in the new book… So, yes, they do turn up.
(It’s one of the things that’s making this new book for Levi tricky, not having the cat in it (since it does what it does at the end of The Afterwards) to act as guide.)
But yes, to answer your question, I live with two cats, Susan and Vincent, and if you follow me on Twitter you’ll often see them.
Q7: I have seen on twitter that you have a mighty beard, what is the longest you’ve let it grow? My beard manages to get halfway down my chest and gets bored with growing any further.
Yes, they find their own length and go no further. Mine sits where it sits (not even as far as yours goes), as much as I’d wish it to grow to Gandalfian proportions.
Q8: Where do you do your writing?
These days I have a shed-office at the end of the garden. Previously it was a spare-room office in the house. That’s it though, at a desk, on a computer. Very prosaic.
Q9: Can you remember the first book you fell in love with?
I loved Ethel and Ernest when I was a kid.
Q10: I know you have written some books of poetry, do you fancy sharing one here?
Autumn Speaks to the Leaves
Won’t you please
get off the trees!?
Q11: What plans you got for the future, any more books in the style of The Imaginary?
As said above, I’m currently working on a new book for Levi, so in the style of The Song From Somewhere Else, rather than The Imaginary. It’s about Frank’s little brother, now ten or eleven himself, getting into trouble down the woods, finding a strange woman with a cottage in a part of the forest that shouldn’t be there, and being offered a deal he shouldn’t say yes to. I think it’s going to be readable and possibly interesting… I’m wrestling with rewrites on the final day right now… And it should be out autumn of 2022…
Fantastic, Really looking forward to having a read of that one.
Practical task: I am doing a gnome gallery on my blog, can you create a piece of artwork based on Gnomes, can be any medium and you are welcome to name the piece.
Gnominally a Gnome Catches some Nom Noms (There is a reason other people illustrate my books.)
I would like to thank A. F. Harrold for taking part in this interview, it has been very interesting to find out about how it all works between author and illustrator. Be sure to check out his books, the three mentioned above are wonderful for reading with your kids and even on your own.